Of the diverse food-related causes about which Americans are concerned, including public health, the environment and animal welfare, one that’s often overlooked is the issue of rights for the nation’s farmworkers — those in the fields and on factory farms who pick, pack and process our food.
“More Americans than ever are interested in knowing where their food comes from,” says the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States, produced by the United Farm Workers and the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation, “but even the most conscientious eaters and food industry professionals are usually in the dark about who picked it.” Most of us know nothing about the conditions in which they work, conditions engendered by an industrial food system.
It is a system that rewards output and efficiency over all else, moving food producers to cut corners anywhere they can. For workers, this has brought about hazardous working conditions, poverty-level wages and minimal protection through labor laws.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries,” with farmers “at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers.”
According to the 2008 USDA Profile of Hired Farmworkers, farmworkers are “among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the U.S.” and “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.”
Farmworkers, moreover, have fewer legal rights in the workplace, and those they do have are not often enforced. This, a 2009 New York Times editorial notes, “is a perverse holdover from the Jim Crow era.” New Deal reforms protected the rights of workers in many industries, in areas like overtime pay, workers’ compensation and days of rest, but, as a result of political compromise, farm and domestic workers were excluded. “Segregationist Southern Democrats in Congress,” according to the editorial, “could not abide giving African-Americans, who then made up most of the farm and domestic labor force, an equal footing in the workplace with whites.” This inequity, after more than 70 years, has yet to be corrected.
Unbelievably, there are cases of full-blown slavery today. In “Tomatoland,” as Care2′s Jaelithe Judy wrote in September 2011, Barry Estabrook reports on the conditions for workers on industrial tomato farms in Florida. If anyone on the crew was unable to work at one farm he investigated, “they were kicked in the heads, beaten with fists, slashed with knives or broken bottles, and shoved into trucks to be hauled to the worksites. Some were manacled in chains.” Seven slavery operations have been prosecuted in Florida since 1997, and some experts believe there may be scores if not hundreds more around the country.
As many as 85 percent of farmworkers in the United States are immigrants (most from Mexico), 81% identify Spanish as their native language and 53% do not have legal authorization to work in the U.S. Few among them feel they have any recourse to action against exploitative and abusive employers.
At the root of these rampant injustices is an industrial food system, shaped as much by government policies as business practices, in which the competition to produce the cheapest food at any cost — including the cost to humanity — is fierce. At what point will we draw the line and say cheap food just isn’t worth the price we pay for it as a society?
Yet it’s easy to forget what you can’t see. That’s one of the points made in the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the U.S.: “the current lack of accessible data and documentation about farmworkers’ employment — and their ultimate role in the food system — has in effect kept farmworkers hidden from public attention.”
I won’t claim to take the time to lament the conditions in which these farmworkers work every time I sit down to eat. But on this Labor Day at least, a day “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” Americans might spare a moment to remember the people who may have had a hand in bringing them that peach, burger or salad they’re about to bite into.
Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos